China's response to a national land-system sustainability emergency

In my 20 year career in environmental science and policy research I have seen many projects, policies, management initiatives, and programs designed to arrest environmental degradation and restore sustainable environments and local economies. Despite the best of intentions, most of these of have been (what I now think of as…) small, and most have not achieved measurable benefits for sustainability on a large-scale, despite what is often perceived to be substantial investment. I had not seen anything even remotely in the same ballpark as what China has done over that same time period for its rural sustainability.

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Jul 12, 2018
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Today we published in Nature a significant review entitled "China's response to a national land-system sustainability emergency". The paper was a result of a large international collaboration between Australian and Chinese scientists dedicated to capturing and characterizing China's massive investment in rural sustainability and the impacts on people and the environment.

The opportunity

Having spent much of my career working on Australian environments, a formative moment in the development of this paper was an out-of-the-blue invitation from Professor Jianguo (Jingle) Wu (Beijing Normal University, Arizona State University) to give a keynote presentation at the 3rd International Forum on Landscape Sustainability Science in Beijing in 2015 spanned. In concluding my presentation on futures for land-use and ecosystem services in Australia, I challenged the audience to come up with ideas about how we could collaborate in a national-scale assessment for China. 

International speakers, hosts, and organisers of the 3rd International Forum on Landscape Sustainability Science in Beijing.

Through many long conversations and toasts of 'Mongolian water' (TIP: it is not actually water) during the highly convivial conference banquets, I developed strong and trusting relationships with several Chinese scientists. Then in 2016, an opportunity arose to further these relationships through the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's (DFAT) Climate Change Engagement Program which aimed to advance collaboration between Australia and China on climate change issues. My CSIRO colleagues (at the time)—Professor Jeff Connor, Associate Professor Neville Crossman, Dr Lei Gao—and I were successful in obtaining a small grant to work in collaboration with my new Chinese colleagues. 

I had an inkling that China had been investing heavily into ecological restoration and land degradation from reading Professor Jianguo (Jack) Liu and colleagues' paper from 2008 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA but I had not seen a lot published in the interim. My original idea for the DFAT project was that we could investigate the carbon sequestration and climate change benefits from large-scale reforestation that was occurring under China's well-known Grain for Green program. 

Onto something big

Around the same time, Dr Yanqiong Ye From South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou visited us in CSIRO for 12 months supported by the China Scholarship Council (CSC). Under the leadership of Dr Lei Gao, Yanqiong set about acquiring and digitising data from the Chinese Statistical Yearbooks on China's investment in sustainability in rural land systems and the area over which sustainability interventions were implemented. 

It quickly became apparent that the story was far bigger than carbon. Chinese investment in sustainability was not limited to the high profile programs like Grain for Green and the Natural Forest Conservation Program, but covered a range of sustainability objectives including forests and ecosystems, agriculture and forestry, poverty and food security, erosion and water quality, biodiversity, desertification and dust storms, and livestock and grasslands. It was also clear at this point that we were onto something big as China's investment was orders of magnitude larger than any other sustainability programs that we knew of, and seemed remarkably sophisticated as the portfolio of programs elegantly addressed the complex trade-offs and challenges commonly presented by land systems. 

Much of this story was little known to Western scientists and not widely recognized by the Chinese either. We suspected that the lessons learned from China’s experience could be important for other countries as they strive towards the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN’s Agenda 2030. 

Dr Xiufeng Sun, another CSC-supported visitor, from Southwest University in Chongqing, helped with the data assembly and visualisation task after Yanqiong left. Together, Lei, Yanqiong, and Xiufeng synthesised the entire 16 major programs we reviewed, analysed investment against the SDGs, prepared the graphics, and assembled the enormous Supporting Information tables associated with the Nature paper.


In late 2016, with the help of Dr Zhifeng Liu of Beijing Normal University, and supported by the DFAT grant, we organised a workshop in Beijing and invited Chinese colleagues with expertise spanning the vast Chinese geography and a broad range of sustainability contexts. We presented the results of our Chinese statistical data mining exercise and an initial scoping of the review of sustainability indicators. Our Chinese colleagues provided invaluable history, context, and interpretation of the programs and their impacts, including identifying a few new programs and sustainability issues that we had overlooked. 

A great strength of this research team was the ability to access both the Chinese literature and the English speaking literature and data. Throughout this process of data synthesis and research collaboration between Australian and Chinese scientists, the contribution of Dr Lei Gao, a permanent Australian resident and indefinite CSIRO employee, was crucial. Apart from shouldering significant amounts of review work and data analysis himself, Lei also served as a leader and mentor for the Chinese visitors, and as a knowledge broker, conduit, and connector—breaking down the geographic, cultural and language divides between Australian and Chinese scientists that so often pose a barrier to effective collaboration. 

Co-authors of the Nature paper at a meeting in Beijing in November 2016. From Left to right is: Dr Zhifeng Liu, Prof Hua Zheng, Assoc Prof Qingxu Huang, Dr Lei Gao, Dr Ang Li, Prof Hai Ren, Prof Brett Bryan, Prof Jeff Connor, Assoc Prof Neville Crossman, Prof Chunyang He, Prof Guodong Han, Prof Jianming Niu, and Dr Zhiguo Li. Absent are Prof Jianguo Wu, Prof Xiangzheng Deng, Dr Mark Stafford Smith, Assoc Prof Yanqiong Ye, Prof Deyong Yu, Prof Xiangyang Hou, and Dr Xiufeng Sun.

Challenges along the way

A great challenge encountered during our work on China was in the importance of understanding the underpinning values and perspectives of scientists and authors. Work on China can be polarizing and is inextricably linked with left or right-leaning political worldviews, often falling into one of two extreme categories—colloquially termed “Panda Huggers” and “China Bashers”. These attitudes that we see so much of in the Chinese media and the Western media, respectively, also pervade much of the modern scientific literature. Yet the influence of worldview on science is subtle and often goes unnoticed by its readers. Panda Hugger work tends to be characterized by a largely uncritical and at times superficial scientific treatment of the issues, whereas China Basher work tends to be hypercritical of the Chinese context. 

I got caught out by this early on as my writing had become influenced by work falling largely into one of these camps in particular. I am grateful to have been set straight by my senior Chinese colleagues who in no uncertain terms explained to me this phenomena and the pitfalls to look out for. Since that enlightening moment I have been convinced that the truth lay somewhere between these two extremes and have been careful to redouble my critical evaluation of everything I read. The middle ground that our Nature paper now treads has surprised even its own authors who have been refreshed by the objective, warts-and-all assessment of China’s programs.

A landmark paper

The paper represents a landmark in sustainability science as it recognizes the unprecedented efforts China has made in mitigating and reversing a dire situation for people and nature in its rural areas. Probably the most astounding thing is that the benefits for rural sustainability are detectable on a national scale. While the programs have been imperfect and negative outcomes have occurred, China’s experience provides valuable lessons for all nations as the they pursue the Sustainable Development Goals. Importantly, the research directions spelled-out in the paper should generate a new generation of case studies, systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and syntheses of the impacts of China’s programs. These are essential for informing future sustainability investment as the Chinese government heads towards President Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream of an 'ecological civilization' and a 'beautiful China'. See a video summary of the paper here:

A celebration

A subset of the author group met again in Beijing in June of 2018 at the 6th International Forum on Landscape Sustainability Science where I presented the results of the forthcoming paper in Nature—the response to, and outcome of, my challenge from the same forum back in 2015. With Chinese hospitality at its best, conviviality reached a peak during this meeting as we celebrated the success of this intercontinental collaboration between Australian and Chinese scientists. Other sectors of society could do worse than to learn from our experience which is that when people from diverse backgrounds work together openly and with mutual trust, then great things can be achieved.

Participants from the 6th Landscape Sustainability Science Forum in Beijing, 2018.

Go to the profile of Brett Bryan

Brett Bryan

Professor of Global Change, Environment, and Society, Deakin University

Growing up on a South Australian wheat-sheep farm, Professor Bryan realised early on in life the interdependence between people and nature. He has since focused his career on creating cost-effective policy and management solutions for the sustainability of coupled human and natural systems. He has expertise in the application and development of computational tools and analytical methods in integrated modelling and assessment of land use and ecosystem services under global change. As a geographer, Professor Bryan has research interests at the human/environment interface combining aspects of land-use and management; agriculture and food security; water resources management; global change impact assessment, mitigation, and adaptation; biodiversity conservation; energy and life-cycle assessment; and economic and policy analysis. He has conducted research in China, India, Indonesia, the United States, and many parts of Australia. Professor Bryan currently holds the position of Professor of Global Change, Environment, and Society in the Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, at Deakin University Australia, located at the Melbourne Burwood Campus. Professor Bryan worked as a Principal Research Scientist and Project Leader in CSIRO for 13 years, and before that, holding the position of Senior Lecturer and Education Coordinator in Geography/Spatial Science at the University of Adelaide. With total career research funding of over $15 million, Professor Bryan has successfully delivered over 50 individual projects including large, integrated assessments aimed at understanding and managing complex social-ecological systems such as the Lower Murray Landscape Futures. He has a global network, having worked with hundreds of collaborators from dozens of countries and scores of organisations including research, government, community, and industry. Professor Bryan has published 91 articles in international peer-reviewed journals, 4 book chapters, 84 conference papers, and 38 scientific reports. He has given 10 national and international keynote presentations including the Global Land Project Asia Conference in 2014. Most recently, Professor Bryan led the land-use modelling component of the Australian National Outlook with the dual role of modelling lead and science lead. In contributing to the National Outlook, he led development and application of the Land Use trade-Offs (LUTO) model, assessing future scenarios for land use economic and environmental sustainability. He has published this work in top international journals including Nature, Nature Climate Change, Global Change Biology, and Global Environmental Change. Outputs have contributed to the ClimateWorks Pathways to Deep Decarbonisation report, the SA Government Carbon Neutral Adelaide plan, and the Business Council of Australia representation to the Australian Government re COP21.

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